THE BLOG
12/17/2014 08:20 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

A Pale Blue Christmas

Andrejs Zemdega via Getty Images

According to Bing Crosby, it's that snow-white time of year again, and that means all the good things associated with Christmas. Perhaps because the holidays usually involve some time off, we often find ourselves introspective during the winter season, and that can stir up a Santa-sized bag of memories.

If we're fortunate, most of the memories are good ones, but the holidays can also remind us of sad things like the loss of loved ones, hard family relationships, or difficult life circumstances that are completely at odds with the decorations, carols, and festivities. It's not unusual for people to be down or even depressed in December, despite all the roasting chestnuts and the dreams of Christmases past -- precisely because of those past Christmases.

This darker side of Christmas explains a relatively new phenomenon: the "Blue Christmas," popularized in song by Elvis Presley, but recently "liturgized" in churches that have become attuned to the sadness that often accompanies Advent. Blue Christmas services have started popping up in churches across the country. There are resources and even websites for how to best plan and run one.

These services are often held on the longest night of the year, winter solstice (December 21). They are designed for people who want to mourn the loss of loved ones or who feel sad, isolated, or depressed for some other, equally significant reason. Even without a formal Blue Christmas service, clergy these days seem increasingly aware that not everyone who comes to religious services in December has visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads.

In one sense, Blue Christmas services seem like a good idea. The reasoning behind them runs something like this: (1) Christmas is supposed to be a happy time, but (2) many people aren't happy (for whatever reason), and so (3) instead of faking it, (4) a Blue Christmas service allows people to acknowledge their unhappiness in a formal, even public way.

Viewed from another angle, however, Blue Christmases seem like a bad idea and for several reasons. Perhaps the most important of these is that the very first Christmas, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was itself marked not by pure unadulterated happiness, but by the darker hues of suffering and death. Almost everyone, religious or not, knows the story of the angels singing to the shepherds about peace on earth (that part is from Luke's Gospel), or has heard about the three kings from the east that come bearing gifts for the "newborn king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2).

Far less popular is what follows: King Herod, the reigning monarch, in a murderous search for his baby rival, orders the killing of all male children two years and younger in Bethlehem and its environs (Matthew 2:16). All the joy of the shepherds and the magi, the angels and the gifts, Mary and Joseph and "the babe in swaddling clothes," is tinged with deep and profound sorrow -- a sorrow that Matthew describes with words taken from the saddest of the prophets, Jeremiah. It was a time of weeping and grief, it was a time of mothers wailing for lost children -- mothers who were beyond comfort because their pain was too deep (Matthew 2:17-18; see Jeremiah 31:15).

This story from Matthew is called "the slaughter of the holy innocents" and it shows how even the very first Christmas was marked by that great back-and-forth movement that marks all of human life -- the swing between joy and sorrow, peace and pain. The very first Christmas, whether white with snow or not, was shadowed by dark hues of blue -- or rather blood-red. No wonder the slaughter of the holy innocents is not represented in crèches.

But it is represented in the Bible, and in the inaugural Christmas story that gave rise to every one since. So it is only a kind of denial of real life that thinks Christmas must be all sweet, joyous, and hopeful without those other aspects -- the darker hues that mark our real and complicated world.

At the same time -- and this is where Blue Christmases go amiss -- the presence of sorrow doesn't mean that Christmastime, even with sadness mixed in, can't be truly joyous and happy. It just means we have to redefine our understanding of "happy" and "joyful."

In recent years, philosophers, psychologists, and theologians have done just that, deepening our understanding of happiness in the process. It's too simple to equate happiness with a pleasurable life, these experts say; understanding happiness in that way is too narrow and limited. Instead, happiness is best defined as the good or meaningful life. That kind of life is never far removed from the harsher realities of life, simply because no life is. But that doesn't mean that a life marked with sadness can't, despite all that, still be meaningful and good. And so, even complex lives can be appropriately called "happy" -- these lives include laughter, yes, but also tears, screams, and groans.

Though Blue Christmas celebrations mean well, they don't help us integrate the real sorrow we feel with the real joy of the holidays because they end up separating the two altogether, placing them in completely different categories. That keeps us from dealing with the reality that sorrow and joy live together, in complicated ways, always. The proof is found in Matthew's account of Jesus' joyous birth alongside Herod's murderous rage; it's equally evident from our own wonderful, sorrow-filled lives, not to mention from our complex, fractured planet.

So this year, rather than dreaming of a "white Christmas" with Bing, or crooning about a "blue Christmas" with the King, it would be far better to think about the holiday as a good bit of both. A mixture, perhaps. Call it a pale blue Christmas. This Christmas, we would be well-served to take the holiday, and all of life, as it comes -- the sweet with the poignant, Bing's snow-white and Elvis's heart-blue, Luke's angels and Matthew's Herod -- and consider how such a concoction somehow gives our lives more meaning, makes them more good. Even and quite possibly, more happy.